By Syed Badrul Ahsan
Aug 05 2013
De-registration of the Jamaat-e-Islami marks a critical turn in Bangladesh’s struggle for identity
The de-registration of the Jamaat-e-Islami as a political party by the Bangladesh judiciary last Thursday certainly brings a new dimension into the prevailing conditions in the country. With its senior leaders on trial for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s war of liberation against Pakistan in 1971 (some of them have already been sentenced to death, with one handed down a life sentence) and others on whom judgment will likely be pronounced soon, the Jamaat is in clear trouble. And that, despite the mayhem its activists have, over these past many months, often resorted to in Dhaka and elsewhere every time one of their leaders has been sentenced.
There is little question that the fundamentalist party, for all the discipline in its inner councils, is today desperate to save itself by trying to force the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina into putting an end to the trials. For her part, Hasina, beleaguered on many fronts at this point of time — and with general elections scheduled in the coming months — obviously would like to salvage public support for her administration through informing the nation that the trial of the Jamaat leaders, followed by the execution of the verdicts delivered against them, is one promise she means to keep.
The worry, though, is that all the convicted men have the right to appeal their sentences, which means the legal process may not come to an end by the time the elections draw near. And then comes the bigger fear that if the government creates conditions whereby the appeals process is swiftly dealt with and the sentences are carried out, it will stand accused of having influenced the judicial process. Given that, both at home and abroad, critics have regularly criticised what they have called the loopholes in the trials process, the government cannot really afford fresh condemnation for its role in the trials.
That said, the Jamaat is today a dispirited lot. The men who have been, or are, on trial were all willing collaborators of the Pakistan army in 1971. They were instrumental in forming such collaborationist organisations
as the peace committees, which in reality were entities designed to help the occupation army identify Bengali nationalist elements and eliminate them. Additionally, the Jamaat played a prominent role in forming the Razakar, al Badr and al Shams outfits, which eventually turned out to be murder squads on the prowl, looking for supporters of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. These squads are said to have assisted the Pakistan army in murdering Bengali freedom fighters over the nine-month period of the war of liberation. On the eve of liberation in mid-December 1971, al Badr men allegedly picked up scores of prominent Bengalis in various professions — academia, journalism, medical services — and subjected all of them to torture before disposing of them. A large number of the corpses of these men and women were found two days after liberation in Dhaka’s Rayerbazar area. The bodies of some others have never been found. An estimated three million Bengalis were allegedly murdered by the Pakistan army and its local collaborators. Two hundred thousand women were raped. Ten million Bengalis fled to India in the nine months of the war.
There is a particular irony concerning the role of the Jamaat in post-1971 Bangladesh. Immediately after the Pakistan army surrendered to a joint command of Indo-Bangladesh forces on December 16, 1971, the Bangladesh provisional government, as part of its policy of secularism, imposed a ban on four religious and communal parties, among which the Jamaat was prominent. Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam, who had been stranded in Pakistan owing to the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan in early December 1971, was despatched to the Middle East by the government of Z.A. Bhutto to urge governments such as Saudi Arabia’s not to accord diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh. Azam went around spreading the lie that Muslims were being killed in Bangladesh and that Hindus were playing a dominant role after the defeat of the Pakistan army there.
Ghulam Azam, stripped of citizenship by the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, travelled to Dhaka in 1978 on a Pakistani passport. Despite the expiry of his visa, the military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman and General H.M. Ershad looked the other way. It was not until the mid-1990s that Azam became a Bangladeshi citizen through a decision of the country’s judiciary. And, incidentally, the Jamaat and other communal, pro-Pakistan organisations returned to open politics courtesy of the Zia regime in the late-1970s. Zia had already done away with the secular nature of Bangladesh’s constitution.
The quandary in which the Jamaat finds itself today stems from two particular factors. In the first place, it has never regretted or apologised for its collaborationist role in 1971. Second, its failure to go through a proper registration process in 2008, when a military-backed caretaker government insisted that all parties acquire registration in line with the nation’s laws, together with its silent refusal to demonstrate allegiance to the country’s constitution, indeed to Bangladesh’s genesis, has brought it to its present predicament. The irony only extends itself. Two of the Jamaat leaders prosecuted for war crimes have served as ministers, despite their 1971 struggle against the country, in the government of former PM Khaleda Zia. Which of course explains why the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Zia, has remained silent on the trial, a position which is embarrassing for it.
The cancellation of the Jamaat’s registration, besides causing worries for the party, will certainly turn out to be a critical test for Sheikh Hasina and her government. To what extent the government can ward off the trouble that the Jamaat, with quiet support from the BNP and other anti-Awami League elements, might be planning for the near future remains to be seen. For the government, it is today a do-or-die situation, a twilight condition through which it will need to struggle really hard to sustain the country’s secular character. A weakening of the ruling Awami League, or its defeat at the forthcoming parliamentary elections, can only prove enervating or even disastrous for secular politics in Bangladesh.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is executive editor, ‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka